Copps: 'We cannot have a seamless DTV transition'

Facing the prospects that US broadcast stations may make the switchover to all-digital on February 17 regardless of what Congress does, the acting FCC chairman told an advisory panel last week it may be too late to undo the damage.

The state of chaos regarding the US' national switchover from analog to digital TV broadcasting may not be something a delay can remedy. This from the man currently heading the FCC while a permanent chairman -- one emerging from an administration said to be favoring a delay -- has yet to be appointed, despite the likelihood of a nominee.

"The next few weeks are going to be extremely difficult -- as difficult as any that this Commission, and millions of TV consumers, has ever faced," Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps told the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee last Friday. "That's because we never really dug deep enough to understand all the consequences that would attend the DTV transition -- not just the intended good results, but all the unintended consequences, too, the ones that usually cause the big problems. It's because we didn't have a well thought-out and coherent and coordinated plan to ease the transition -- a plan to combine the resources we needed to avoid disruption."

There was a plan, at least at one point, and it did involve public/private sector cooperation. IBM was the designated partner of the Commerce Dept.'s NTIA administration, for the distribution of government-backed coupons toward the purchase of digital signal converters. But as early as November 2007, administrators received warnings from retailers such as Best Buy that the coupon distribution was stalling.

Chairman Copps says he was among those who warned the FCC leadership and the Bush administration that a disaster was in the making, that the public/private cooperation was failing. But that was then.

"At this point, we will not have -- we cannot have -- a seamless DTV transition," the acting chairman remarked. "There is no way to do in the 26 days new leadership has had here what we should have been laser-focused on for 26 months. That time is lost, and it's lost at a cost. We cannot make it up. There is consumer disruption down the road we've been on. We need to realize this. We need to plan for it. And we need to do whatever we can to minimize it and then to repair it. This has been the focus of my one week and one day running this place."

The House of Representatives may yet be able to manage a delay in the national switchover date to June 12, following the Senate's lead. But despite a message from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D - Calif.) this morning breaking down the exact number of households believed to still be on the coupon waiting list by congressional district, no markup session for the DTV Delay bill has yet been scheduled.

Since the defeat of a measure to fast-track the bill last week, it's being forced to take the normal route any other bill would take. In this instance, that route takes it right through Rep. Waxman's committee, whose ranking Republican member, former chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R - Texas), is the bill's principal opponent. For the bill to pass, it must be debated there during a markup session, then voted on for committee recommendation.

But no such session has been scheduled; and with only 15 days to go before the regularly scheduled transition date comes to pass, there isn't all that much time.

Even if the delay passes, many stations may just go ahead and make the switch on February 17 anyway, since the delay bill would permit them to do so. Nearly all San Diego TV stations last week joined together in support of the transition, with the sole exception being the area's PBS affiliate. A spokesperson for KPBS, according to TV Technology, said it wanted the opportunity to maintain maximum visibility throughout its planned March pledge drive.

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